The 'Devil' We Know: Hollywood's Walk Up Seventh Avenue

(Photos By Barry Wetcher -- 20Th Century Fox Via Associated Press)
By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 30, 2006

When Meryl Streep, playing fashion editor Miranda Priestly in "The Devil Wears Prada," first appears on screen, she's carrying a dove-gray Prada handbag, one with the logo embossed on the side. The viewer barely gets a glimpse of Miranda. The camera holds steady on the handbag, not the person.

That is intentional, according to costume designer Patricia Field. She wanted to make a cheeky reference to the brand name in the film's title, but did not want the lead character seen as someone draped in obvious designer labels.

"I knew I didn't want every single label in the world unless I wanted to make a parody," Field says. "Fashion movies failed in the past because they parodied fashion but didn't show fashion."

Undoubtedly, fashion insiders will declare the film's portrayal of the industry to be inaccurate or exaggerated. That is to be expected because they like to feed the notion that the industry is inscrutable, the equivalent of a secret society. Hazing is a hurdle to membership. Some of this is pure pettiness. Much of it is defensive. Declare the interlopers hopelessly unsophisticated before they can belittle fashion -- the billion-dollar industry of stilettos and low-rise jeans that helps fuel a global economy and taps into the very ways in which we define ourselves.

Whether the fashion worn by the Devil and her minions is good or bad is a subjective matter, but nothing is horrible hyperbole. One character in the film wears a shrug that looks like it might have been part of a Klingon costume, but then sitting ringside at real fashion shows, it is possible to see professional women wearing dresses that resemble a Hefty bag and shoes that seem to have been snatched from the feet of Ben-Hur. These women are bosses, too, not obscure assistants to some junior editor. (Those girls often can be found wearing teeny-tiny mini-dresses that could have been swiped from a baby-wet-and-cry.)

When the audience finally gets a good look at Miranda, her clothes are not shrill endorsements of every designer from Seventh Avenue to Paris. Her clothes evoke authority, power and an unself-conscious attention to personal appearance. The occasional flashy flourish -- a merlot-colored fur coat, for heaven's sakes -- reminds one of those hot-off-the-runway trinkets that a doting designer sends, in a lovely gift box, to an editor's corner office or her suite at the Four Seasons. Not precisely her taste, but one wouldn't want to be rude and send it back.

Mostly, though, Miranda wears styles such as Bill Blass suit jackets and Donna Karan dresses. She looks chic, duly theatrical and extraordinarily expensive.

That is as it should be. A woman who has risen to become the editor of the most influential fashion magazine -- in this case the fictional Runway -- should exhibit style, confidence and clout. She should not look as though she has swaddled herself in the clothes of every advertiser in the September issue of Vogue.

Speaking of Vogue, the film, which opens today, is based on a novel by Lauren Weisberger, who was the real-life assistant to Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue, who does, in fact wear Prada, as well as Oscar de la Renta and Chanel. (This reporter worked briefly for Wintour and never once felt inclined to refer to her as Beelzebub.)

Streep has spent a significant amount of time assuring folks that her portrayal of Miranda was not based on Wintour, but is in fact an amalgam of many tough-minded and demanding bosses. It is the kind of denial one typically delivers after a stern lecture from a team of lawyers on "how not to get sued." The denial is completely unbelievable, especially because no other editor provokes the kind of freakishly obsequious behavior that Wintour inspires, the kind of behavior that makes perfect fodder for a film. (This reporter has seen people run -- not walk briskly, not jog, but sprint -- to fetch her coffee. People who don't even work for her.) A pivotal scene occurs at an elaborate formal gala that looked suspiciously like Wintour's Costume Institute party at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The only difference? The guests at Wintour's event are dressed better.

Field borrowed many of the costumes for the film and occasionally was confronted with a designer who did not want to participate for fear of offending Wintour. Hmm, take part in a major motion picture starring Meryl Streep or tick off the editor of Vogue? What to do, what to do? "But a few designers are not going to make or break a film," Field says.

Anne Hathaway's whining, self-important assistant Andy deserves the verbal smackdowns she receives. Andy arrives for her interview at Runway looking like she barely remembered to comb her hair, never having read the publication or Googled its editor. This failing is supposed to be evidence of seriousness and intelligence. She's too smart for fashion magazines! But would anyone applaud a young woman who showed up at Ford Motor Co. wearing a T-shirt that says "Bicyclists Do It Better"? People are tempted to applaud Andy's dispassionate view of clothing. But who would want to hire an auto executive who had nothing but disdain for cars and no idea who William Clay Ford Jr. is?

Slowly, Andy's clothes start to reflect her changing relationship to fashion and the way she defines herself. She begins dressing from the magazine's fashion closet, Field says. So she looks as though every item on her back has been plucked from a list of "must-haves." (No, a lowly assistant wouldn't so brazenly treat a wardrobe closet like her personal dress-up trunk. Yes, editors "borrow" clothes all the time.) Andy begins dressing like a lot of folks who are suddenly intrigued by fashion. They wear labels and head-to-toe outfits because there is safety in a well-known brand. If it says Chanel, it must be fashionable, right?

Eventually, though, Andy just starts to look good, not like a billboard. Style is born out of confidence. And by the end, Andy has found herself, settling in somewhere between a show pony and someone who looks as though she slept in a barn. Sometimes, a little fashion hazing can be a beautiful thing.

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